Chigozie Maduchukwu, state champion of Poetry Out Loud

PHOTO by kevin cortopassi

“And the misery, and the / Anger, and the vow are the same.” Minutes after reciting that final line of Kenneth Rexroth’s “The Bad Old Days,” Chigozie Maduchukwu stood on a stage in the state Capitol and accepted first place at Poetry Out Loud’s California state championship. His rendition of the classic poem, as well as his recitation of two other poems by Frances Ellen Watkins Harper and Elizabeth Bishop, also earned him a trip to D.C. for nationals. The junior from Pleasant Grove High School ultimately lost in the nation’s capital, but like many poets, Maduchukwu only performs for the love of the art … and also for SN&R.

What got you into poetry?

I’ve always liked literature. Writing poetry in my free time was enjoyable to me. And then seeing my sister do [Poetry Out Loud] when I was younger was a really big push for me moving forward with it, because I saw that there was so much more to it than just reading and writing.

You chose the poems to recite in the competition, so what was special about the three you chose?

I looked for poems that I felt I could relate to right off the bat, or ones that I felt I could understand even if it wasn’t about something I had been through. … I didn’t just want one topic or genre.

How different is it reciting other authors’ poetry and reciting poetry that you write?

I know what emotions I have when I write my own poems, so it’s easy to know where I want, or what points I want emphasized. But when you read somebody else’s poems … it’s a lot of reading, and re-reading, and re-reading them, reciting multiple times until you truly feel what someone was going through during that time.

What’s one of the most powerful lines in the three poems you chose for Poetry Out Loud?

I’d have to say a part in “The Bad Old Days” by Kenneth Rexroth, the third poem that I recite. Near the middle-end part, in the recitation where I start getting frustrated, he starts off with, “The sour smells of a thousand / Suppers of fried potatoes and / … Of my misery I felt rising / A terrible anger and out / Of the anger, an absolute vow.” I just really, really love that line.

With that said, let’s have you answer some questions by only using lines from poems.


What is your poetry like compared to the poetry that you chose?

Here’s a line from one of my poems: “It’s like the river, the space, or any sort of interpretation forever moving and growing.”

Where does your poetry draw its inspiration from?

From Elizabeth Bishop’s “Filling Station”: “the rows of cans / so that they softly say: / ‘esso-so-so-so’ / from high-strung automobiles.” It’s the environment that we have, and that’s where I draw my poetry from.

What’s the difference between reciting poetry for competition versus delivering poetry for expression?

A line from my own poetry, “Same difference equals some product.” Basically, you have the same level of seriousness and desire to understand and to be understood. In the end, people will understand you, somewhere or some place.

When you’re reciting other authors’ poems, how do you make them your own?

In the words of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper: “All the poet’s aspirations / Centre in that prayer for light.” It’s almost as if you pray and beg for the light, or the life, of the poet to enter yourself.

What makes a poem great?

From my own piece of poetry: “Both complexity and simplicity interwoven into fabric of reality.” That’s what makes a poem great. How deep it is, but how easy it can be to understand all parts.

So what makes a great poet?

Just one line from my own poetry, “Acceptance in one’s effort.” … I’ve read a small book of poems written by kids that are in grade school, and some of the poems are so interesting to read, but they don’t have medals or titles. They’re not acclaimed literary artists, but still their poetry is beautiful. That’s what makes a poet great.

What is the most important poem in history?

That one is hard. To me, the most important piece of poetry in history is “How Do I Love Thee?” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.” It’s a very common love poem, but I think the way it’s structured is so simple and easy to understand. … To have a true passion for something or someone to count the ways you love them? That’s my favorite poem by far.